The month before I left for college I questioned everything.

Higher education has been a dream of mine since I started high school and knew I wanted far more out of life than the people around me. But as I stared my future in the eyes, I realized I was terrified of change.

That was my first mistake.

In August, days before I drove down to Texas, my fears settled to rest. In the stillness of my thoughts I was reassured. This was my path. The threshold had already been crossed.

I was wrong, because I wasn’t walking over it – I was on the other side, glancing over my shoulder, feet carrying me away before I understood I had ventured across the ground of no return.

But twenty-six hours across the country and three weeks into the semester, I was struck by a terrible loneliness. Where had my fledgling hope gone?

For my major, I was enrolled in several upper-level classes where it seemed like everyone had decided against making friends. I wasn’t in the usual round of prerequisites – which I was grateful for – but felt like I was missing out on something fundamental.

As I drifted through September, I started to realize that I hadn’t yet formed a ‘group.’ My friends from Welcome Week had slowly wandered apart. My acquaintances at church were still too new. My residence hall offered a lot of opportunities to connect with people, but in my self-assured blindness I ignored them and assumed I’d just “make friends over time.”

Within weeks, despite joining various clubs and consistently attending church, I was miserable. Positivity was a daily struggle. Dark thoughts from high school whispering you have never been enough began to creep back in. Everyone around me seemed to have found a place, a people.

Connections had been made. Bridges had been crossed.

And I was standing, hands hanging by my sides, paralyzed.

The problem was largely my inability to step outside my box of personality and preference. I was against Greek life, period. I’m not outgoing by nature, and I was unwilling to take the steps to open myself up to people or improve at small talk.

I was lonely. I was suffocating. I hated college.

People kept telling me life was going to get better. But telling a quasi-depressed college student that things will get better is like telling a single person there are plenty of fish in the sea: it’s too hard to believe what you can’t immediately perceive.

Over winter break I took time to self-reflect and seek advice from my parents. I realized that I had caused a lot of my own problems. I was – and am, to an extent – in control of my own happiness, and I was suppressing that ability by convincing myself otherwise.

In the spring, I took four proactive steps to cultivate a happier, healthier, and more positive college experience.

The first thing I did was begin a health and fitness lifestyle program. As the saying goes: sound body, sound mind. I enjoy exercising but had been too intimidated to check out the gym. I remedied this by bolstering my courage, putting myself on an exercise plan, and staying on track with two to three group fitness classes a week. Within a few weeks I had more energy, and – more importantly – was stepping outside of my comfort zone.

The second step I took was joining an organization. I didn’t rush a typical sorority, but found a co-ed fraternity committed to some of the same causes I was. Through it, I was able to connect with many like-minded, diverse people.

Next, I took a step back from my church to reevaluate why I still didn’t feel connected. I realized that some of my own expectations had been holding me back. With a new perspective on my personal faith and the standard of faith presented by the church, I was able to get re-involved without feeling as much pressure to “click” as before. All though it sounds counter-intuitive, it gave me an opportunity to work on my individual faith, separate from conflicting ideals and values being presented to me.

The last change I made was living with intention. I began to approach each new day and situation with a specific goal in mind. Sometimes it was as simple as “have a good day,” and sometimes it was more along the lines of “try one new thing.” I started to create space to write and read – an activity I love. Keeping the creative juices flowing when the crush of homework increased helped me organize brain space – and even assignments! – with clearer focus.

Standing at the end of my spring semester, I now understand that I still have a tremendous amount to learn, and that college will be both as scary as it seems, worse than it seems, and better.